Future of bill to kill mandatory retirement bleak

Originally published in the Ottawa Citizen on February 22nd, 2010. To go to the Ottawa Citizen website please click here

Possible spring election threatens passage of legislation

A bill that once seemed poised to sweep away the last vestige of legislated mandatory retirement in Canada is losing political steam following objections from Canadian businesses and labour organizations.

The private member’s bill, sponsored by Quebec Liberal MP Raymonde Folco, was unanimously approved at second reading last December.

“I had all parties on board with this,” Folco said in an interview. “They all felt that with minor amendments, which I agreed to, they could vote for the bill.”

But after committee hearings this month, she says, “that’s no longer where it is. I’m not sure that the government is still on board, and I’m not too sure the NDP is still on board.” As a result, the bill’s prospects have gone from bright to bleak. Though Folco is “not totally pessimistic,” with a spring election expected, the window for passage is rapidly closing.

Folco’s bill would repeal a section of the Canadian Human Rights Act that allows federally regulated employers to terminate employees who have reached “the normal age of retirement” for workers in similar positions.

All provinces and territorial governments have already repealed similar provisions in their own human-rights codes. For federal public servants, mandatory retirement was eliminated in 1986.

That leaves the federal government as “the last jurisdiction in Canada to hold onto legislated age discrimination,” says the Canadian Association of Retired Persons (CARP).

The human-rights act’s provisions apply to 12,000 federally regulated businesses and industries employing 840,000 people who work for the Canadian Forces, Crown corporations and sectors such as banking, broadcasting, transportation, railway, telephone and marine shipping.

In practice, though, fewer than two per cent of those employers — including 10 per cent of those with 100 or more employees — have mandatory-retirement policies.

That hasn’t stopped the Canadian Chamber of Commerce and FETCO (Federally Regulated Employers — Transportation and Communications), which represents businesses employing 586,000 federally regulated workers, from raising a host of concerns about Folco’s bill.

John Farrell, FETCO’s executive director, told a parliamentary committee hearing that banning mandatory retirement would “remove an important mechanism that has been available to federal employers to manage some older workers with dignity with regards to diminishing performance resulting from advancing age.”

It will also affect the cost and functioning of pension plans, benefit programs and workers’ compensation insurance, Farrell said. Moreover, employers should be able to apply “reasonable mandatory retirement ages” in occupations where work is associated with a high risk to public safety, he argued.

The Chamber of Commerce made similar points in an appearance before the committee this past week and asked for a two-year delay in implementing the proposed law.

Organized labour has also weighed in. New Democrat MP Tony Martin, a member of the committee studying the bill, said his party, “in partnership with the labour movement,” has concerns about the bill’s “unintended consequences.